Girl with a Pearl Earring is a fictional narrative of the titular girl in Johannes Vermeer’s famous seventeenth century painting of the same name. Set in the Dutch city of Delft, the novel is beautifully written and well-researched, with vivid descriptions of the markets and streets of the city. Chevalier’s novel, much like Vermeer’s painting, is created from many tints and shades slowly and carefully mixed together. Colour and detail are woven gently into the story, slowly and magically building up the narrative to its climax. The narrative in effect captures the very process of painting and shows the beauty and depth of the final work.
At the age of 16, Griet is sent to work as a maid in Vermeer’s household after her father, a tiler in Delft, has an accident which leaves him unable to work. Her duties in cleaning Vermeer’s studios come to involve her assisting the artist, ultimately leading to the corruption of her innocence. Vermeer had observed her passion for colour as she set out the vegetables for soup in her mother’s kitchen: “‘I see you have separated the whites’ he said, indicating the turnips and onions. ‘And then the orange and the purple, they do not sit together. Why is that?’….‘The colours fight when they are side by side’”.
Griet’s increasing awareness of the way in which the colours build on each other to give depth to the painting draws her into the world of the painter and his studio. Her growing intimacy with Vermeer and his painting culminates in her modelling for him, and further isolates her from the familiarity of her own family and fromthe other members of Vermeer’s household, including family members and other servants.
Presented with the first person thoughts of Griet, the reader sees the descriptions and action through her large, wide eyes. The structure of society at different levels in Delft is depicted deftly, as Griet seeks to understand and negotiate her relationships and interactions with the people around her. She is also acutely aware of how much she can and cannot share with her own family about her experiences and feelings in the household. In parallel, she has to keep her feelings, such as her pain at her sister’s death, hidden from the members of the Vermeer household, all of whom seem to resent her to varying degrees. This leaves her feeling very alone and it is her immersion in the work of the studio, and with Vermeer himself, which absorbs her and gives her a sense of fulfilment.
The narrative highlights the power of men in defining the status of the household in Delft at that time. This power is emphasised by the way in which Griet is seduced into the painting and the world of the painter and also by the effect this has on other members of the household. As she becomes increasingly aware of the effect she has on Pieter, the butcher’s son, van Ruijven, the artist’s patron and Vermeer himself, she is also very conscious of the implications and practicalities of potential relationships and pragmatic about her ultimate choice for her path in life: “I reached the centre of the square and stopped in the circle of tiles with the eight-pointed star in the middle. Each point indicated a direction I could take. …. When I made my choice, the choice I knew I had to make, I set my feet carefully along the edge of the point and went the way it told me, walking steadily.”
It is Griet’s journey, as she moves from innocence to a greater worldliness, through the medium of the painting that is the main theme of the novel, absorbing and engaging the reader throughout.